Students and teachers from elementary, middle and high schools in Alabama,
California and Tennessee have prepared biological samples for an experiment
astronauts will place aboard the International Space Station this week when
the Space Shuttle Atlantis returns to that unique, orbiting laboratory.

Working side-by-side with university and NASA scientists, the students mixed
and loaded about 100 of the 500 biological samples in small plastic tubes
that were then frozen and placed in an experiment container.

The crew will transfer the experiment from the Shuttle to the Space Station
during the STS-104 mission set for launch Thursday.

“We are pleased to give the scientists and engineers of the future a
hands-on role in biotechnology experiments on the Space Station,” said Ron
Porter, manager of the Biotechnology Program at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight
Center in Huntsville, Ala. Marshall is NASA’s lead center for flying
payloads that take advantage of the low-gravity environment created as the
Space Station orbits Earth.

This will be the third trip to the Space Station for the experiment, called
the Enhanced Gaseous Nitrogen Dewar – a vacuum-jacketed container, similar
to a large thermos bottle that stores the samples. Since the hands-on
educational project began in 1999, students and teachers from more than 500
schools in states across the country have attended workshops where they grew
crystals and learned about biological substances that carry out many
important functions for humans, animals and plants.

The students and teachers mix biological solutions and seal the chemicals in
small tubes or capillaries. The samples were frozen to -321 degrees
Fahrenheit (-196 degrees Celsius or 77.3 degrees Kelvin).

Just before the Shuttle launch, scientists place the samples in a dewar that
has an absorbent inner liner saturated with liquid nitrogen. After Atlantis
docks with the Station, the crew will move the dewar to the Space Station.
After about ten days, when the nitrogen has completely boiled off and
thawing is complete, the biological solutions will form crystals.

When the Space Shuttle Discovery visits the Station in August, the dewar
will be brought back to Earth, where scientists will retrieve and analyze
the crystals to determine the structure of biological molecules.

The students can view photos of the crystals grown during NASA workshops on
a special Web site designed by Dr. Anna Holmes, a NASA scientist who helps
conduct the workshops at the University of Alabama in Huntsville.

The students can also monitor results as Dr. Alex McPherson — a biochemist
at the University of California at Irvine and the lead scientist for the
experiment — analyzes other crystals grown aboard the same flight. Right
now, McPherson and other scientists are analyzing crystals grown on the
Station in the fall of 2000 and spring of 2001.

Often, higher quality crystals can be grown in the low-gravity
environment created as the Space Station circles Earth. Scientists use the
crystals to map the structure of macromolecules – the building blocks that
make up proteins, viruses and other substances that perform critical
functions in our bodies and in animals and plants. Knowledge of the precise
three-dimensional molecular structure is an important tool for biochemists
designing medicines.

This pilot education program has been supported by the NASA
Headquarters Education Office in Washington, D.C.; Marshall Center
Biotechnology Program; University of California at Irvine; University of
Alabama in Huntsville; Alabama A&M University in Huntsville; Alabama Space
Grant Consortium; Florida Space Grant Consortium; Texas Space Grant
Consortium; Bell South Pioneers in Tennessee; Alabama Science in Motion, a
division of the Alabama Department of Education; and many other corporate
and institutional sponsors.

The Enhanced Gaseous Nitrogen Dewar experiment and the student
experiment program are sponsored by the Microgravity Research Program Office
at the Marshall Center and the Office of Biological and Physical Research at
NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C.